When the British Olympic Association's head doctor urged London 2012 athletes not to shake the hands of rivals during the Games lest they catch a bug, he was generally taken to task for his unsportsmanlike advice. But it looks like the good doctor may have been on to something.
New research from Aberystwyth University in Wales found that the so-called fist bump – once relegated to the realm of athletes, now employed as a gesture of greeting by clergymen and world leaders alike – spreads one-20th the amount of bacteria that a traditional handshake does.
The fist bump even bested the old-school high-five, which transmitted about half the bacteria of a handshake.
Which translates to this: Especially during cold and flu season, ditch the classic and go with the bump, said researcher David Whitworth.
"There are alternatives to handshakes. You see them on telly all the time — the fist bump and high-five and all that," Whitworth said.
We all know that keeping the hands germ-free is one of the best ways to avoid contagious illness, and most research so far has looked at spreading bacteria by touching germy surfaces. But few studies have considered other people’s hands in that category.
Whitworth and student Sara Mela conducted their research by shaking hands, bumping fists and high-fiving repeatedly, one wearing a bacteria-doused glove and the other wearing a clean one. The gloves were analyzed after each greeting. They concluded that the smaller surface area of the fist bump was responsible for the decrease in bacteria.
The handshake dates back to ancient times when it was used as a kind of weapons check – neglecting to shake hands could put someone at risk. Now, the opposite looks to be true, especially in places like hospitals where shaking hands is common.
Whitworth said he hopes that changes. "In a hospital, you really don't want people to shake hands. It's an unnecessary risk," he said.
"Adoption of the fist bump as a greeting could substantially reduce the transmission of infectious diseases between individuals," added Whitworth. "It is unlikely that a no-contact greeting could supplant the handshake; however, for the sake of improving public health we encourage further adoption of the fist bump as a simple, free, and more hygienic alternative to the handshake."
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